Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘R. Radhakrishnan’

406. Of Piercings, Pain, and Authenticity

In Books, culture, Family, Immigration, India, Stories, United States, women & gender on January 7, 2018 at 2:27 pm


For the past nine days and counting it has been a low-grade irritation at best; at worst, almost as excruciating as the opening scene in Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel, Ambiguous Adventure (L’Aventure Ambiguë, 1961), in which the young protagonist’s teacher, to drive his Qur’anic lessons home more deeply, grips Samba Diallo’s tender earlobe between the nails of his thumb and forefinger and pierces right through it. As the tenth day dawns, my dwindling hopes are at vanishing point, and there is no consolation. What else did I expect?

Let me start at the beginning. It’s about ear-piercing. In India, at least in Dad’s generation, ears were pierced at birth, during infancy or in early childhood, boys and girls alike. But mine were not done, and for some reason I can’t remember, I wasn’t inclined to get them done when I came of age. As I grew older, I came to consider it a barbaric practice, or so I retorted loudly whenever someone asked me why my ears weren’t pierced. For was ear-piercing different from any other form of ritual or cosmetic body-modification? Why would one want to violate the body’s integrity by piercing and scarring it?

Then I started getting earrings for presents. Dad returned from his first trip to India after our immigration to the States with beautiful silver necklace-and-earring sets, of which I could only wear the necklaces. And when Andrew and I went to India after our marriage, various relations wanted to present me with earrings fashioned from family gold, and were downright annoyed with me for not having pierced ears. What Indian woman didn’t have her ears pierced? Just more evidence of my cultural inauthenticity.

After dear Leela-kaki in Pune presented me with a pair of custom-made gold post earrings, my cousin Kalyani, with her characteristic no-nonsense efficiency, took me out into the alley behind the jeweller’s, where they did the job unceremoniously over an open flame. We continued on our travels with my newly-pierced ears, in the heat of May.

The outcome was predictable, I suppose. It was impossible to care for my ears properly while on the move, and they became infected. I can’t remember when I took out the earrings, but I kept them in until the situation was untenable. Upon returning to the U.S., I made the mistake of not leaving them in permanently, so every time I put on a pair of earrings, my ears would bleed afresh. Eventually I gave it up as a bad job and decided to let the hole seal up.

Ten, fifteen years went by. After Nikhil graduated from university he started going to India quite often and bringing back beautiful earrings for me, so I decided to try again. But when I got to the ear-piercing place at the local mall with my gold studs from India in hand, I found that they wanted you to purchase special earrings from them, and so I changed my mind and came away with nothing to show for it.

Fast forward another decade and my dear friend Marianne presented me with beautiful silver earrings, expecting me to put them on right away. Like everyone else, she had simply assumed that my ears were pierced: whose weren’t? I determined then and there that I would get the deed done this time, come what may, as a Christmas present to myself. Well, I did, and “what may” has now come to pass.

On my first free day after Christmas I set out for the mall, resolute. When I got to Claire’s, recommended because they regularly pierced children’s ears, I saw a pre-teen girl perched on the high stool waiting, her mother by her side, supporting her in this small coming-of-age ritual. Slim and leggy, like a young deer, she was shivering with equal parts eager and anxious anticipation, anticipation of the piercing itself, to be sure, but also of the solemnity of the occasion, of the adulthood into which it was initiating her, and all that it signaled, both pleasure and pain. I told her that I was nervous about my own coming ordeal, and was watching her carefully. If she cried, I would run a mile. She giggled, shivered again, and came through the ordeal sporting pretty pearl ear studs. Wreathed in smiles, she leaped off the stool to join her mother in shopping for new earrings. Her life was all ahead of her; what was I thinking, undergoing this ritual at my age? But now I was trapped: it was my turn.

It was a straightforward procedure, except for the numerous forms I had to sign releasing Claire’s from legal responsibility for anything and everything that might possibly go wrong. Besides whether to stay or to run a mile, there was just one choice to make: which one of their selection of post earrings I wanted put in my ear while the piercing healed. But I made the wrong choice.

I was all set to go ahead with a low-priced pair featuring gold clasps and a clear shiny stone of no particular value when the manager arrived and came on strong with a recommendation of the diamond earrings. They were “only” 40-odd dollars more, but they were smaller, sat closer to the ear, and came with a full replacement warranty should they break or get lost. Best of all, they were nice enough for me to wear them all the time as my default pair. Stupidly, I relented. After all, this had been a long time coming; why economize now?

But from the second that I heard the click of the hole punch, the problems began. One side felt relatively normal after the initial sharp pain of the piercing, but the other one felt wrong from the start. Both ears were soon red and swollen, accompanied by a persistent dull throb. I followed the cleaning and care instructions religiously for several days, but to no avail; things only got worse, to the extent that the sharp diamond studs were actually starting to get absorbed into my ear. I looked it up and found that it was called embedding; now that was truly frightening. A week out, I went to my doctor, who took one look at the studs and told me that they were on too tight. The problem, we soon discovered when we went to loosen them, was that the posts were too short and they were already on their loosest setting. She prescribed an antibiotic and recommended adding a saline wash and a thrice-daily heat pack  to the treatment regimen—if I didn’t want them taken out, that is. She said there was only a slim chance that things would improve, but that it was up to me how to proceed. So here I am four days later, and things aren’t appreciably better, although I keep telling myself that there is a slight improvement and I’ll give it just one more day.

Why didn’t I simply ask the doctor to remove the earrings and be done with it ? It was because I would have to give up on wearing earrings for the rest of my life (not to mention leaving scars from two failed attempts on my earlobes). But why was this such a daunting prospect? After all, I haven’t worn them all these years and here I am in my sixties. Was it because deciding to let go of the idea of piercing my ears once and for all would force me to accept that the time of self-adornment was over for me? Or because now, all those earrings lovingly given to me as presents would never be worn? Or was it because I would have to acknowledge one more sign of my ethnic inauthenticity? All of the above, I think, but there’s something more.

(from india24)

As postcolonial theorist R. Radhakrishnan concluded in an early essay, “Is the Ethnic ‘Authentic’ in the Diaspora?”, the answer is inevitably Yes: the culture and consciousness of those living outside of their country of origin are bound to depart from its norms. Migrants, minoritized and marginalized in their new environment, often cling all the more to their ethnic identities unquestioningly, frequently shoring up outdated identities in the process. We can all think of examples of ethnic  subcultures in the New World preserving beliefs, practices, and cultural forms (including language) that have long been obsolete in their home countries. But is that the point? After all, people who have never left their country of origin also flout its cultural—and its political—norms. One can be out of touch and uninformed no matter where one lives; conversely, one can remain current with and critically informed about one’s country and culture no matter where one lives. But what does any of this have to do with my inflamed ears?

Going back to the young Samba Diallo in Ambiguous Adventure, one can safely say that the painful corporal punishment meted out to the boy in his religious tradition was extreme, even barbaric. However, in that powerful and haunting novel, the pain that Samba Diallo was to encounter later, as a young man, was far more excruciating—the pain of cultural alienation. Realizing that in order to survive under French colonialism, they would have to adopt the tools of their new masters, his family made the decision to give their beloved son a French education, and with it came the wrenching loss of everything he held dear, alienating him from all that made him who and what he was. I suppose that, deep down, I fear that loss for myself, even though I know that true authenticity is not something worn on one’s sleeve—or my case, in one’s ear—but something deep and inward.

In my heart of hearts, I believe that my ears are inflamed simply because I am allergic to earrings. My body reacts violently to any foreign object piercing holes in it, even if it is made of pure gold. I can keep delaying the inevitable, loth to relinquish that last flicker of hope that my system will finally accept the intruders; but in the end, I will have to accept what I knew all along: that this will never happen, and being authentic, being true to myself, means acknowledging and accepting this fact.

In the meantime, I will continue with the treatment regimen three times a day, continuing to kid myself until I can do so no longer. And when that time comes, there will be no consolation; what else did I expect?

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

285. Sometimes a Coincidence

In 2010s, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Nature, places, seasons, Stories, United States on September 29, 2014 at 2:58 pm


I live just west of the Quabbin Reservoir, a massive manmade body of water that serves as a major water supply for Boston. It was created in the 1930s by flooding four small towns in central Massachusetts, whose former residents still gather to remember their homes that are no more. Today the Quabbin is a pristine jewel, a home for endangered bald eagles and a haven for wildlife of all kinds.

My regular commute to work takes me round the Quabbin’s northern edge. On the way my carpool partner and I often encounter great blue herons, wild turkeys, deer, foxes, and occasionally even moose. It’s a beautiful ride that makes the longish drive a positive pleasure, at least when I’m not on automatic pilot, just trying to get there or back as quickly as possible. After some early experimentation, I decided that this route was the most enjoyable of my three shortest options, and now I take it all the time; that is, unless something unexpected happens.

On the Thursday before last, the 18th of September, I had left work early to attend a lecture at UMass Amherst to be delivered by R. Radhakrishnan, an old mentor of mine who is now at UC Irvine. The topic of the talk was “What’s Wrong with Humanism?” and I was looking forward to it very much. At the halfway point on my drive, realizing that I wouldn’t have a chance to eat anything until quite late at night, I stopped to pick up a quick sandwich; which turned out to be a mistake, since when I went to restart the car, my key wouldn’t turn in the ignition. When the kind owner of a nearby repair shop sprayed some graphite in the lock to no avail, and told me that the entire lock would have to be replaced, I gave up on what was wrong with humanism, called AAA, and waited resignedly for the tow truck to arrive.

Because I was out of my immediate area, AAA had to send a tow truck from Ware, a town that had been cut off and left behind by the creation of the Quabbin. (I think of it as rather like the child who got left behind when the Pied Piper of Hamelin led the rest of the children into the mountain, never to return. It seems—admittedly, to an outsider—that it has never since been able to thrive.) The driver was a lean, handsome man of about my age who took the whole thing in his stride and allowed me to ride back home in the cab with him once he had secured my car on the flatbed.

We took a different route from my regular one, a long, slow drive down Route 32 from Petersham through Hardwick, New Braintree, Ware, and Belchertown, hugging the eastern length of Quabbin and then coming round the southern edge. It was lots of fun taking in Route 32, little more than a country lane, from high up in the cab of the tow truck and as he pointed out notable landmarks along the way, I marveled at the fact that I had never travelled this particular stretch of the road in more than 30 years of living in the region. It turned out that he too was an immigrant and had come to the US at the same time I had, nearly 45 years ago; also that he was a Scot and was looking forward with great anticipation to the results of the referendum that night. As fellow-immigrants we talked about our parents and children, dual citizenship, belonging and unbelonging; and as country-dwellers we compared notes about the night-time low temperatures in the past week, guessing at the date of the first killing frost, while the beautiful scenery of rural New England rolled on by, conjuring up inevitable feelings of late-summer nostalgia.

That weekend, my car back on the road now, I had the occasion to take a Sunday drive up the western length of Quabbin again, to visit old friends in Royalston, one of the nine towns in the North Quabbin region. On the way back, my mind full of my To Do list for the coming week, I was suddenly brought up short by a road block. They told me that there had been a bad accident up ahead and that the road would be closed for approximately five hours, so motorists were advised to take a different route. I had only two choices: to return home by a more westerly route or to go all the way around the east side of the Quabbin. Since I had neither a map book nor a global positioning system in my car (just the other day, I recalled with some embarrassment, I had been staunchly defending my choice not to purchase one) and the days were getting shorter, I didn’t want to risk going west through a warren of tiny unmarked roads in the gathering dusk. So I took the easterly option, which involved turning around and going up and around the northern boundary of the Quabbin, and back down and around its western and southern borders—guess what, by exactly the same route I had taken the previous Thursday.

What were the odds, I asked myself, that, not having taken that route ever before, I would be traversing it twice in a three-day period? Suddenly I had a powerful feeling that this was something I was meant to do, even though I had no idea why. I turned around very deliberately, and with a strange sense of the convergences of fate, drove up, around and back down those stunningly beautiful country roads, straining to pay attention to every little detail along the way in case it turned out to be significant. Nearly an hour later I was back home, having seen nothing of note—at least nothing that I was aware of —and still wondering what it had all been about. Surely this was too odd to have been nothing more than a random coincidence?

Over the next couple of days, as late summer pivoted into fall, I shared my story with a couple of my friends and asked them the same question. They too marveled at it, and the eminently sensible explanations they offered were eye-opening for me, but were both more and less obvious than the esoteric answer I had been hoping for. Susan said, “Maybe you needed to have taken the route the first time, on the tow truck, so that you knew the way home the second time round.” Carlos said, “Maybe you should pay closer attention all the time, because you never know when you are going to need to notice something.”

It is often said that there is no such thing as a coincidence. But it is a fact that I drove that never-before-taken route twice in a three-day period. I paid attention the first time, as the friendly tow-truck driver pointed things out to me all along the way, and I certainly paid attention the second time, as I strained to find meaning in what had happened. Both times, I was forced to turn off my usual automatic pilot and take in the beauty of my region with fresh eyes. Both times the experience was worthwhile for its own sake. And both times it took me home. Riffing on Freud, one could suggest that “sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence.” But is any coincidence ever just a coincidence? Was there something I was meant to learn and have I learned it? The answers are probably staring me in the face.

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282. It’s Only Temporary

In Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on September 1, 2014 at 4:22 am


When our family first immigrated to the United States, I was quite certain, at age fifteen, that I would leave as soon as I came of age. Year after year, decade after decade, as I completed my undergraduate studies, went to work, paid taxes, traveled to different parts of the country, married, and had a child, I continued to tell myself that my sojourn was only temporary; more than four decades later, here I still am. “Temporary” turned out to be a very long time. But as long as I thought of my American sojourn as temporary, I did not make a whole-hearted commitment to it.

Officially, my immigration status remained that of an outsider: Permanent Resident Alien (as if I were a species of space invader), which I proclaimed with pride, even braggadocio. One of my mentors in graduate school, Prof R. Radhakrishnan, had made the point that for many immigrants to the United States there was little emotional incentive to acquiring citizenship when it entailed a loss, a fall from the condition of sovereign citizen to that of a minority—a process he called “minoritization.” Like many immigrants, long after I could have become a naturalized citizen I continued to feel that I would lose more than I would gain by doing so. Indeed, I might have chosen to remain a resident alien had it not been for the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. After September 11th, when even immigrants with permanent resident status were threatened with losing basic civic and human rights, my sense of insecurity as a non-citizen finally outweighed my reluctance to give up my other identities and I filed for naturalized citizenship. (There was another reason I decided to file when I did, and that was my growing sense of irresponsibility. I couldn’t vote, and now that my son was old enough to do so, what kind of example was I setting him?)

So, like many immigrants, I found myself staying, but all the while refraining from putting down roots very deep, looking backward as much as I looked around me. As the years passed I realized periodically that I had lived, loved, and worked in the U.S. for half, then two- thirds, then three-quarters of my life. This was as permanent as it got. And yet, emotionally, I continued to look elsewhere for sustenance, to my parents’ places of origin.

Of course, everything in this world is temporary; but that makes it all the more urgent that we pay attention and cherish the here and now. Everything changes and passes away, and while we are looking elsewhere, it flows right on by. This does not mean that we must live for the present—at least, not for the present alone—but it does mean that we should live in the present—as the Sufis say, in the world, but not of it. I accept that I am nourished by other soils, but I must also remember to be here now, precisely because it’s only temporary.

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